Friday Books: Of mobsters and pop music

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The Independent Culture




IN THE red corner are Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. In the blue, we find Marion "Suge" Knight, Dr Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eazy E and Dat Nigga Daz. At the end of this heavyweight celebration of showbiz machismo, only the audience will be left standing. Taken separately, these books are notable variations on the theme of talented young men with more money than scruples. Play them simultaneously, and you get a strange resonance, as stories of charisma and intimidation intermingle in harmony more often than discord.

Ronin Ro sounds like a pseudonym, and if his book's subject - the justly infamous gangsta-rap overlord Marion "Suge" Knight - ever gets out of prison, a new identity is the very least Ro is going to need. To say that Death Row label boss Knight (a 300-pound ex-football star who used to greet visiting journalists by forcing their heads into a tankful of piranhas) does not come well out of this brutal catalogue of pistol-whippings, stompings and blatant racketeering would be putting it mildly.

While Ro's boldly researched and gripping account has the page-turning thrill of a primary source, Shawn Levy has a different mountain to climb. Not only have his principals passed on to the great floating crapshoot in the sky, but their lives have already been thoroughly strip-mined for mythological significance by such canny prospectors as Kitty Kelley and Nick Tosches.

Still, why compromise the Chivas Regal of pure mythology with the flat ginger ale of first-hand experience? Levy reduces the heady carbonara of his material to a potent stock, and the end result is almost as much fun as if he had really been there. He has a great eye for a quote, from Frank Sinatra's excuse when observed having dinner with notorious mobster Lucky Luciano ("It suddenly struck me that I was laying myself open to criticism by remaining at the table, but I could think of no way to leave in the middle of dinner without creating a scene") to Dean Martin's response to a lachrymose mafioso's heartfelt profession of respect for him: "Keep a little for yourself, huh, pallie."

The least convincing moments in this richly entertaining book come when Levy attempts to elevate the lounge-lizard croneyism of Sinatra and his buddies into an important historical event - "the last great moment of showbusiness consensus". Such headline formulas do disservice to the insight shown in his dissections of the Rat Pack's elusive magic.

In the end, it is the continuity between these two stories of power, corruption and entertainment that truly captures the imagination. Their obvious common theme is the dynamics of the gang. While Sinatra and co's buddy posturing at first seems relatively harmless next to the real-life Crip versus Blood vendettas behind West Coast gangsta rap, the Rat Pack realities of bullying and submission were every bit as ugly.

The line between charisma and intimidation is always a thin one. Furthermore, the Rat Pack's mob affectations had substance as well as style. The connections between mafia court jesters Sinatra, Martin et al, and the made men who owned and ran the Vegas casinos where they worked, were every bit as real as the fiscal roots of Death Row Records in partially-laundered drug money.

But there are deeper and more unexpected links. The most vivid sections of Levy's book address the poignant figure of Sammy Davis Jr, whose pay- off for Sinatra's progressive attitude to equal rights in employment was to be the butt of unending racial jokes. He would submit to this indignity "like a courtier to Ivan the Terrible". For shock value, the moment when a group of Southern high-rollers insist that the Sands Casino swimming pool be emptied because they have seen Davis in it vies with any of the nihilistic brutalities in Have Gun Will Travel.

Gangsta rap's refusal of moral constraint is most simply understood as a reaction to the desperate struggle for respectability fought by a previous generation of black entertainers. Where Sammy Davis Jr squeezed his hands together to help him imagine for a second what it felt like to be white, Suge Knight got his local DA onside by offering the white lawman's daughter a bogus recording contract.

Both these books come to fairly grim conclusions. While the Rat Pack aged and died with varying degrees of gracelessness, Frank Sinatra's realisation that "there was no need to hide his primal urges behind a dinner jacket and a string section" was having fateful consequences for American pop. The dramatic climax of Have Gun Will Travel - the death by gunfire of Death Row star Tupac Shakur after a Mike Tyson fight at a Las Vegas casino - is the ultimate expression of the traditional connection between criminality and show business.

Suge Knight had based his heavy-handed management style on Al Pacino in Scarface. He was the real-life godfather of a form of entertainment which not only legitimised but actually demanded the death of its participants.

Steve Jelbert writes about Death Row Records and rock management on page 15